If you’re reading this article, chances are that this is not the first article you’ve read on the topic of student success. It’s a hot topic today, and with very good reason. The traditional measurements of success in higher education are being called into question, and strict rubrics that prioritize fixed ideas of time-to-graduation and term-to-term retention are being dismantled in favor of more robust concepts of student success that take real experiences into consideration. And while this is absolutely a step in the right direction, more robust definitions of student success require much more robust and comprehensive student success programs.
Some of us are lucky to be at institutions with a clear strategic vision, healthy infrastructure, and plentiful budget to develop and maintain programs designed to serve students and guide them toward success under these new definitions. Others of us may be in more … challenging environments. We may be in spaces where funding is tenuous. We may occupy offices without a clear line of responsibility for student success outcomes. We may find ourselves up against more nebulous forces, like institutional inertia, or a historically unresponsive student population. These challenges are only insurmountable if they cause such discouragement that you stop having conversations about student success.
So, given all of that, who should be having these conversations? Those of us working to advocate for student success programming serve in a variety of capacities, and bring a lot of different valuable perspectives to the table. Here are some different people to keep in mind, whether you’re forming an officially sanctioned committee or building grassroots buy-in:
Arguably at the heart of student success work are the folks in Student Affairs. Depending on the institution, their influence may reach into other areas covered here (like advising or student life), but unique to this office is their understanding and influence of the policies and procedures that govern students, and where students are most challenged within the university structures. Whether the issues are policies around academics or student conduct, or procedures for campus housing or student group formation, these are the fences that define the boundaries and borders of student experience. At minimum, Student Affairs professionals can provide insight into why those fences are where they are, but they may also be able to illuminate problem areas that may be harder to see from other positions, or provide guidance about how to make larger institutional changes.
Students having a sense of belonging is one of the most important driving factors for student success – belonging with their peers, in the classroom, and at the institution as a whole. There are few people who are more focused on facilitating student engagement and developing that sense of belonging than Student Life professionals. From supporting student organizations, to hosting events, to responding to crises, to creating hospitable physical and online spaces, these folks on the front lines have deep perspective to offer on some of the aspects of student success that are most difficult to measure. Even anecdotes are vital to student success work – without those stories of how real lives are impacted, the impetus to drive institutional change can easily be diminished.
When the primary reportable outcome of student success is around academics, the people who are guiding students on the courses they’re taking, the programs they’re pursuing, and their progress toward their eventual graduation are deep in the nitty-gritty details of student success. If there are course requirements that are major blockers, or issues that come up over and over again, academic advisors can speak to those patterns.
For schools that have a large population of students living in campus housing, Residence Life staff absolutely must be involved in student success planning. Beyond just access to housing in general, or financial issues around room and board, the residence life staffers who engage with students on a daily basis are often the first to find out about those major life events that impact students and their education. Family issues, relationships, medical problems, and mental health issues are the kinds of things students share with the people they know and are most comfortable with – and residence life staffers certainly tend to be those people.
Financial Aid & Student Billing
The role that money plays in student success cannot be emphasized enough, and these are the folks who can speak to what’s going on with students and their money. Financial aid can provide insight into resources that are available and federal regulations, and student billing offices can speak to issues around payment of bills. Often, it’s putting these two pieces together that can reveal patterns that need to be addressed.
Sometimes, Enrollment Management offices are directly responsible for term-to-term retention rates, and sometimes they only oversee incoming student admissions processes. Either way, their involvement in student success programming is necessary. By engaging incoming students in meaningful ways to connect them to resources, students are more likely to come into their college experience prepared and equipped to face challenges. Those with established relationships with incoming students can offer a personal handoff to those student services staffers who will be supporting them through their educational journey. Any possible obstacles to success that may come up through the admissions process can be addressed even before classes start if there are clear channels of communication open across campus.
There’s no way to talk about student success without talking about technology. From recording important data points about student experience, to integrating systems across campus, to using compelling technology to reach students in meaningful ways, IT is a central part of the student success story on campus. Additionally, IT brings an inherently practical perspective to conversations about student success. It can be easy to get too idealistic when talking about student success, but IT can keep the conversation moving in directions that bring the ideals and strategies into a tangible, real space.
In terms of building early relationships with students and getting a first glimpse into a student’s potential academic success, faculty members are vital members of any student success program. By involving them in conversations about student success at the planning level, their buy-in can be gained, and any subsequent requests for them to submit early alerts or report optional midterm grades will have context about the important role they play.
Involving students may seem incredibly obvious to some of you, but so often we can get so caught up in getting the right administrators in the room that we can forget that the people with the best understanding of student success are the students themselves. These conversations can be organic, on an individual level in appointments or informally on campus, or more formally facilitated, through surveys or focus groups or student representation on a committee. Whichever approach works for you will depend on your particular institution – but any conversation about student success that takes place without students is already operating at a deficit.
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